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County attorney, sheriff say drug abuse is an issue in Hubbard County

Last week, the Hubbard County Opioid and Education (HOPE) awareness initiative hosted an education and awareness event at Park Rapids Area High School.

The event, which was emceed by County Attorney Jonathan Frieden, featured keynote speaker Rep. Dave Baker, along with a panel discussion with Sheriff Cory Aukes, Co-occurring Therapist Rita Anderson of A Better Connection and Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Dee Alleckson from Essentia Health.

HOPE was formed by a committee made up of community stakeholders directly involved in drug related issues facing the area.

At the event, they looked at the dynamics of substance use disorders, treatment options and why help is so important for those that are struggling with addiction within the community.

"Here in Hubbard County, of the 500 to 600 felony level cases that we prosecute every year, very few do not involve some sort of connection to drug abuse or drug use," Frieden said. "Specifically possession and sale crimes, but also burglary, theft, property crimes and child in need of protection cases as well. Very few of those cases don't involve a parent or parents that are using narcotics in some form. So it's an issue here in Park Rapids and Hubbard County."

Rep. Baker lost his son, Dan, in 2011 to an accidental opioid overdose at the age of 25. Dan was injured while playing hockey and that is when their family got their first taste of an opioid.

"The medical community uses opioids for pain. And there's a place for pain in medicine. I don't want to stand up here and tell you that it's wrong to ever take an opioid, but where I want to make sure I challenge people is that they know that there is a point when your brain starts needing it all the time," Baker said. "Short-term pain is a good place for an opioid. This is synthetic heroin, but it's effective when used during the early stages of pain."

Their family launched the Dan Baker Foundation with a mission to help individuals and families fighting addiction, and in 2014, Baker decided to run for state representative from District 17B.

He was instrumental in passing legislation that requires ambulances and first response teams to use Narcan in overdose cases. He also sponsored a law that requires physicians to sign up for Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), a database that requires doctors to enter the names of individuals who have been prescribed Schedule II drugs.

Baker is the chief author of five bills in the Minnesota Opioid Reform Act. He hopes to find money from pharmaceutical companies to integrate PMPs with people's health records in doctor's offices.

According to Baker, since the late 1990s, over 300,000 deaths have occurred from opioid overdoses. He explained that when pharmaceutical companies first introduced time-released opioids to the medical field, doctors were told the medication would be non-addictive, which of course, was untrue.

"They were found guilty in a court of law. They paid a huge fine. People were fired from this company and they never stopped selling these pills. The pharmaceutical marketing practices has helped fuel this crisis," he said. "The medical community owns part of this as well. They took it on quickly because it was helping a lot of people, but I think where the medical community could have paused was when they were seeing their patients come in needing more pills for the same amount of pain."

He explained that there are not many other options to treat pain that are covered by insurance companies, such as physical therapy.

"The opioids are flying under the radar. One specific thing I hope as a community we can change is how the public views that drug," Sheriff Aukes said. "It's heroin in a bottle. People do not perceive these drugs as bad. We need to change that mindset."

As a psychiatric nurse practitioner, Dee Alleckson says she's probably the last person someone who is struggling with addictions will see.

"When someone is struggling with addictions, we need to take time to look at the underlying cause. Generally, it's depression or anxiety, pressures that they're dealing with," she said. "It's taking the time to really insure those individuals that they treat their depression or anxiety and face that."

She added that within the community there is a strong resource with a lot of different therapists. She prefers to work closely with the therapists because as a provider she recognizes that a medication alone is not going to fix the problem. Her perspective is the least amount of medication possible for the shortest amount of time.

"I get people that are ready for treatment and they have to wait a long time to be admitted to a mental health treatment facility," she said. "That's one of our shortcomings, because when they're ready, they are ready to make that change and a lot of times they are hanging on by a thread by the time they are finally admitted for care."

Rita Anderson said opioid addiction can be a difficult subject to talk about openly.

"Opioid addiction is just one of the addictions, but it can grab hold so quickly and take a life so quickly compared to some of the other substances," she said.

Anderson described addiction as a brain disease that hijacks the prefrontal cortex and an individual's way of thinking and that is why it causes a struggle and makes it difficult for a person to see they are having difficulties.

"Addiction is a family disease and it certainly affects relationships, friendships. For someone that is seeing a loved one suffering, I would say start with getting your own support," she said. "Perhaps seek support through meetings, figuring out how to help the person but at the same time not enable the behaviors."

A member of the audience questioned what steps Hubbard County is taking to help reduce the abundance of available drugs in the community.

"The role of law enforcement might be a little bit different. As far as keeping the drugs off the street, we have a full-time drug officer and that's all that individual does is drug enforcement," Aukes said. "We are actively working drug cases. We have sent several cases up to the county attorney's office for prosecution."

Baker added that Hubbard County should pursue establishing a drug court, which is a specialty court that deals specifically with drug related cases.

"Drug courts are a great thing. Right now we are working on it and it is an issue of scheduling with the court system," Frieden said. "It is something that hopefully will happen here in the future."

According to Dr. Michele Thieman, lead facilitator for HOPE, the goal of the event was to involve more members of the community and get them talking about substance abuse in the Park Rapids area.

She said, "Solutions will not come easily but the goal is to get people thinking about the problem and to better understand how we as a community can tackle it."